Israelis, Palestinians woo China; Kaifeng crypto-Jews caught in the middle?

Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, flew to China Feb. 24 to urge Beijing to back sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons project. Fischer, a former high official at the World Bank and IMF, was accompanied by Israel's minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, and representatives of Israel's National Security Council. "They will discuss issues of common interest with the Chinese. This includes the Iranian issue, which is important for the Chinese as well as Israel," Yaalon's spokesman said.

The visit comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for an immediate embargo on Iran's energy sector. Of the five permanent UN Security Council members, China is most resistant to employing sanctions to coerce Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear ambitions. (Reuters, Feb. 24)

Apparently in response to Israel's diplomatic offensive, the Palestinian Authority's ruling Fatah movement is dispatching its own high-level delegation to Beijing, scheduled to arrive at the end of the month. A senior Palestinian official on Feb. urged China to continue its support for the Palestinian cause. "We hope that the Chinese support for the Palestinian cause, people and Fatah movement will continue until a Palestinian state is established," Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf told the Chinese new agency Xinhua. (Xinhua, Feb. 25)

Zionists seem to have developed a special interest in China. Shavei Israel—an organization that looks for lost Jews and encourages them to make aliyah—boasted last Oct. 22:

For the first time, a group of seven descendants of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China has moved to Israel.

The new arrivals, who were brought here by the Shavei Israel organization, arrived at Ben-Gurion airport late Tuesday night.

The city of their birth, Kaifeng, sits on the banks of the Yellow River and was home to a flourishing Jewish community for more than a millennium.

"I am very excited to be here in the Holy Land," said Yaakov Wang, one of the new immigrants. "This is something that my ancestors dreamed about for generations, and now thank G-d I have finally made it."

Wang said that he eventually hopes to become a rabbi, so that one day he can help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to learn more about their heritage.

"We received special permits from the Interior Ministry to bring them here for a year, during which time they will prepare for conversion. They will then receive Israeli citizenship and be considered new olim," Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund told Israel National News. "The group will be staying at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, near Beit Shean, where they will study in the Hebrew ulpan."

From the airport, the group went straight to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where they recited the "Shehecheyanu" blessing, and then burst into a chorus of traditional Hebrew songs.

"It took us more than two years to get the requisite permits from Israel's Interior Ministry to bring them over, but it was worth the wait," said Freund. "This is an historic event," he said, adding that, "Kaifeng's Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their roots".

The account notes that at their peak in the medieval era, the Kaifeng Jews numbered some 5,000, but widespread intermarriage and assimilation—as well as the death of the city's last rabbi—brought about the community's virtual demise by the middle of the 19th century. But the account says nothing about what accommodations Shavei Israel made with the Chinese state to establish contact with the lost Jews of Kaifeng.

We have noted before that indigenous Middle Eastern Jews have served as political cannon fodder for Israel, their persecution at the hands of Arab regimes serving as convenient propaganda. Crypto-Jews from such seemingly unlikely places as Burma and Ethiopia are also being used by the Israeli right as demographic cannon fodder to populate the West Bank. We're all for the cultural survival and recovery of the Kaifeng Jews, but we hope that they will not be similarly exploited for political or demographic agendas.

We also note that both Israeli and Palestinian dealings on the question of China's minority peoples have been replete with irony. Shavei Israel may now be rushing to embrace the Kaifeng Jews, but when the Dalai Lama visited the Abrahamic Holy Land four years ago, he was snubbed by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership alike—by the Israelis because recognizing Tibetan grievances against China would legitimize Palestinian grievances against Israel; and by the Palestinians so as not to alienate Beijing, a traditional but wavering backer of the Palestinian cause.

See our last posts on China, Israel/Palestine, indigenous Middle Eastern Jews and the crypto-Jews

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  1. As a Jew from Myanmar
    As a Jew from Myanmar (Burma) I can fully say that we are not crypto-Jews. Judaism in Burma goes back at least 1200 years and the practice of our religion was not hidden from the government or authorities, please check your facts.

  2. Kaifeng Jew visits New York
    Tablet magazine reports Nov. 22 on a visit to New York’s Touro College by a member of the Bnei Menashe from northeast India and a woman from Kaifeng who has recovered her Jewish heritage, organized by Shavei Israel. Of the woman from Kaifeng, it writes:

    Jin Jin, 28, who now goes by the Hebrew name Yecholya, hails from the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, which originated in the Middle Ages when a group of Persian Jewish traders settled in the area. During the Middle Ages, Kaifeng’s Jewish community numbered over 5,000 people, had Rabbis, synagogues, and community centers. But assimilation took its toll and after Kaifeng’s last rabbi died in 1810, a series of floods destroyed what was left of the community’s synagogue.

    Thanks, in part, to the softening of Chinese communism and rise of globalization, there has been an awakening among Chinese youth seeking to reclaim their Jewish heritage. Today there are estimated to be 500 to 1,000 descendants of Jews in China (Tablet’s Matthew Fishbane wrote about the renaissance of Jewish life among the Jews of Kaifeng for the New York Times in 2010).

    Jin, who wore a black t-shirt and knee-length skirt, in line with the halachic standard of modesty, or tznius, showcased her playful persona with humor, drawing laughter from the audience as she told her story.
    For Jews in Kaifeng, due to their centuries-long exile, Jin explained, abstaining from pork became the last remaining marker of their Jewish heritage. “And in China that’s a big deal,” she said. “So as a girl, I always had a desire to eat pork.” In order to reinforce the tradition, her father told her about a very wise group of people who immigrated to China many centuries ago.
    “How did they get so wise?” he would prompt her. “They didn’t eat pork.”
    Jin moved to Giva’at Zev seven years ago with a group of four young women. “As soon as I arrived at the kotel I was crying, and I didn’t know why,” she told the audience. “But something goes on there.”
    Initially Jin worked on a kibbutz, at a vineyard, where she said she fell in love with the land. Today she works as a guide for Chinese tour groups visiting Israel and hopes to serve as a bridge between the two countries. In 2009, another seven young men from Kaifeng immigrated to Israel. One of them, Yakov Wang, is studying to become a rabbi and hopes to be the first rabbi in Kaifeng in two centuries.
    We are considerably more encouraged by the return of a rabbi to Kaifeng than by an exodus of Kaifeng Jews to Israel…
  3. Hanukkah in Kaifeng

    Times of Israel reported Dec. 7 that a Hanukkah festival was held in Kaifeng, presumably for the first time since the Jewish community there began to re-emerge—although we aren't told what the venue was. A photo provided by Shavei Israel of the menorah lighting seems to show the interior of a private dwelling. None of the actual Kaifeng Jews are quoted. Instead two quotes are offered from Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund: "The Chinese Jews take their inspiration from the Maccabees. Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly. Kaifeng's Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people." And: "[A]fter centuries of assimilation, a growing number of Kaifeng’s Jews have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity. They are trying to figure out why it’s important to be Jewish and we want to help them have a stronger Jewish identity."

  4. China clamps down on Kaifeng Jews

    Xi Jinping's campaign against "unapproved religion" is reaching the Jewish revival in Kaifeng, the NY Times reported Sept. 24….

    The government has shut down organizations that helped foster Jewish rediscovery, prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays, and removed signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past from public places.

    "The whole policy is very tight now," said Guo Yan, 35, a tour guide who advocates a distinctively Chinese strain of Judaism and runs a small museum in an apartment filled with pictures of Kaifeng’s Jewish past. "China is sensitive about foreign activities and interference."

    Only about 1,000 people claim Jewish ancestry in this city — a drop in China's ocean of 1.35 billion people or Kaifeng’s population of 4.5 million — and only 100 or 200 of them have been active in Jewish religious and cultural activities, experts say.

    Nobody outside the government seems to know for sure why this tiny band of believers came to be viewed as a threat. But officials appear to have become alarmed about their growing prominence sometime last year as Mr. Xi’s government demanded that religious groups and foreign organizations bow to tighter controls. Judaism is not one of China's five state-licensed religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism.

    An accompanying photo of Guo Yan shows her standing beside an Israeli flag placed in the window of her museum. This might have something to do with it…

  5. Kaifeng Jewish community activist abducted

    Researcher Noam Urbach tells Haaretz that he was contacted by Guo Esther Yan, who runs a small Jewish museum in Kaifeng, and was apparently briefly abducted by security agents and interrogated about her activities.